Some say that yogic practices are beneficial but tantric practices can be dangerous. Please clarify this.
Whenever I hear people speaking negatively about tantra, I feel they should be corrected. Even in India many swamis think that yoga is one thing and tantra is something else. In my opinion, tantra is the philosophy and yoga is the practice. Tantra explains the expansion of consciousness and liberation of energy, but the way of actualising this it through the practices of yoga. Therefore all those who teach yoga actually teach tantra.
We have to be honest with ourselves, and if we are then we will have no mental problems. Tantra teaches us to be honest and to accept ourselves for what we are. What we cannot renounce or give up, we must accept. If we cannot stop drinking, we must accept it. If we cannot give up a non-vegetarian diet, we must accept it. It is not good to think about giving something up, but at the same time to continue with it. This only creates conflict in the mind which later on develops into complexes. On the path of spiritual enlightenment we must learn to accept life as it is. We should not be like the ostrich which when attacked, buries its head in the earth, thinking that because it cannot see itself, its enemy also cannot see it. This is exactly what everybody has been doing, and it is also why we are constantly being attacked! Tantra teaches us to see the problem (the attacker) and shows us the way to escape or overcome it.
The practices of tantra are so powerful that everyone can benefit from them. You may not be able to practice in the traditional way, you may not be able to chant the many mantras and perform the various rituals, but definitely you can repeat a mantra and practice concentration on a yantra. The best way to practice tantra yoga is to learn the various hatha yoga exercises. Then gradually you can progress to pranayama, mudras and bandhas, then to the practices of pratyahara (sense withdrawal), dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation).
What is bhoga?
Interaction between the mind, senses and objects is called bhoga. When the mind identifies with matter, consciousness formulates itself in the shape of things. Therefore the shadow of the object appears in the mind and this is called bhoga. In ordinary language bhoga means enjoyment; anything for the sake of pleasure is called bhoga. But classically, when the eyes fall on a flower, for example, and there is an interaction between the mind, senses and object, this is called bhoga. It is, therefore, a material experience. If I sing a song and you listen to it, there is an interaction between the mind, the sense of hearing and the sound. This is known as the process of bhoga. But when the same experience takes place without any interaction between the senses, mind and object, that is called yoga. Yoga is not just detachment or renunciation; yoga it union. When the mind is withdrawn from all perceptions and modifications, and unites with cosmic consciousness, that is yoga. Tantra is the union of bhoga and yoga, simultaneous awareness of the outer life and the inner life.
What are the tantric views on this age, the kali yuga?
According to tantra this is the last of the yugas. Its life span is about 432,000 years, of which we have finished some 5,000 years. The concept of the kali yuga is as follows. In previous ages, man had to strive spiritually and only by great efforts could he come to the point of knowledge. But now, in the kali yuga, with even a little spiritual practice, man can open his inner mind. He can awaken the divine nature within him with far less effort than was previously required.
In the famous epic, the Ramayana, it is written that in the satya, treta and dwarpa yugas, people performed austerities for thousands of years, meditated for centuries, gave away vast amounts in charities and lived a life of sannyasa or renunciation for decades, but still they could not realize the truth, in the kali yuga, however, even if you repeat the name of the Lord only once with faith, you may attain full liberation.
In this age the most important quality is faith. If your faith is pure then the way is clear. Austerity is not needed because bodies are delicate. Charity is also not of great importance because people art economically insecure in these times. One hundred years of meditation is not possible because our minds are jumping every moment. Therefore the two greatest yogas in the kali yuga are tantra and bhakti. Through tantra we learn to accept life and through bhakti to accept the divine. Tantra shows us the way to empty our self of karma so that we can be filled until bhakti, divine love and devotion.
In the previous ages, man was fall of guilt and always criticized himself; he could not accept his own personality. Now, in the kali yuga, we are trying to understand everything. We are attempting to put a mirror before ourselves, and we want to be honest about what we see. There is no reason to hate or criticize whatever we cannot avoid. The best thing is to understand the purpose of nature. Eating is a habit created by nature, not by man. Similarly, sleeping and sexual intercourse were created by nature. We must learn to deal with all aspects of life in a respectable way. Thus in the kali yuga people are becoming more aware of their relationship with the true nature of creation.
This is the optimistic view of the kali yuga, but there is also a pessimistic view which is mostly concerned with the dark days coming and man's development of negative attributes. People are sensual, miserly, weak in mind and body, dishonest, self willed, and always thinking about themselves. However, all this is balanced by the fact that even a little spiritual practice yields a good harvest. Now it is up to you to decide whether the Kali yuga is good or bad.
Can you tell us about left hand tantra?
First of all I want to make a correction. The term 'left hand' is a wrong translation. In Sanskrit, vama actually means 'one's wife' and charya means 'behaviour'. When we combine them correctly we get vamacharya which literally means 'behaviour with one's wife'. However, the person who originally translated this word bed a very poor knowledge of Sanskrit grammar and translated vama as 'left' which is another meaning of vama, but in this case is totally out of context. Other researchers copied It and the mistake is going on endlessly.
Married relations are absolutely legal and religious, and tantra has some good suggestions for the sexual integration of husband and wife. Firstly tantra talks about vajroli mudra, a practice by which you can gain control over an important nerve flow, the vajra nadi, which links the energy normally used in sexual activity to the brain. Through its correct control you are able to maintain brahmacharya even while living with your wife. When the mind is free from sexual fantasies and semen is not released, that is called brahmacharya. However, if you refrain from contact with women but your mind and dreams are full of sexual fantasies and thoughts and semen falls, that is not brahmacharya. Thus every man who wishes to control his vital force should practice vajroli mudra.
Secondly, if you concentrate on a mantra or on ajna chakra during sexual interaction with your wife or husband, you can avoid exhaustion, guilt and depression.
Every husband and wife is subjected to complexes arising from sexual life, which lead to frigidity, impotence, feelings of inadequacy, sadism and numerous other psychological problems. How are you going to get rid of them? If they are not eliminated, then husband and wife will be unhappy and may not be able to live together. So we come to the third point, the necessity of understanding and respecting marital relations. Is sexual interaction bad? If it is then don't have it. If you have sexual relations with your wife or husband, then understand and respect what you are doing. In tantric practices husband and wife are Shiva and Shakti; they are ida and pingala. They undergo the whole process of sexual integration with utmost respect and faith in themselves. But this union has to be understood correctly. If you are going to practice it only for the sake of momentary pleasure, then you will lose your energy; you will exhaust it. Your wife will be dissatisfied, and a host of psychological problems may ensue.
In tantra there are three grades of aspirants. All people do not belong to the same stage of evolution. Some are on the instinctive level; others are on the emotional, intellectual level, and yet others ere on the divine, spiritual level. Each of these levels has its own interpretation for the 'five elements' of tantra. For example people who live on the instinctive plane regard sexual interaction as physical union and nothing more. But for people on the mental and spiritual levels, sexual interaction symbolizes the union of prana and apana or of mind and spirit. For them wine is not the wine of the bottle; it is amrit, nectar, ambrosia obtained from the practice of khechari mudra. Likewise, flesh does not refer to meat eating but to the idea of transcending body consciousness. Similarly, fish symbolizes the fickle nature of the mind which is stabilized through yogic practices.
I want to make it very clear here that although tantra has always accepted 'sexual behaviour with one's wife', at the same time, it had a higher esoteric interpretation of it for spiritually evolved souls.
What does it mean when they say that tantrics are 'dead to life'?
The tantric is not dead to life, rather he understands life better than anybody else. Otherwise he would not have cared to accept the element of sexual interaction which is generally so misunderstood by everyone. The tantric has learned to live life, to aim higher, to respect his own urges, to utilize everything in life for the spiritual take-off, and finally not to consider anything as anti-spiritual. Nothing kills spirit; there is no sin and no reason for guilt. In tantra all the normal activities of life - eating, sleeping, working, passions, fears - are utilized as instruments for the take-off to spiritual life.
In tantra what are the different ways of obtaining and using a mantra?
Mantra is a symbol of the unconscious which is inherent in the personality of everyone. Mantra is the form of nada the primeval sound or basis of the whole creation. Even in the ancient books it is written that 'In the beginning was the word'. In individual form the word is mantra and in cosmic form it is nada. So mantra exists on two levels, cosmic and individual.
In tantra there are all kinds of mantras, so before seeking a mantra it is very important to know what you want it for. If you are undergoing some problem in life then the mantra which you employ to get rid of it will be a temporary one, not your personal mantra. When the problem subsides, the mantra will be of no further use to you. On the other hand, if you are trying to awaken the kundalini or psychic powers, then you must have the correct personal mantra accordingly. There are mantras 'proper' and also bija mantras. Bija mantras are very powerful and are used mainly for spiritual purposes to awaken the kundalini or a chakra, for psychic communication or averting some kind of trouble in life. Every chakra has a bija mantra e.g. lam, vam, ram, yam, ham. Also people who are devoted to different forms of gods and goddesses use their names as mantras. They have faith in a great power and develop love or attachment for a particular deity like Shiva or Kali who represents that force. There was an English professor in India who was in love with Lord Krishna and used to repeat only his name as a mantra.
According to the tantric tradition, initiation into mantra is given either by the guru, one's mother or revelation. A mantra received in a deep dream or through intuitive inspiration which you constantly feel a strong attraction for may also be taken as your mantra. At the time of initiation several important points are explained to the aspirant: firstly, the necessity of keeping the mantra secret; secondly, the importance and practical implication of the mantra; thirdly, the nature of the mantra and how it forms the basis of the relationship between guru and disciple, end finally, the purpose of the mantra.
Your mantra is absolutely personal and must be kept secret. When you keep the mantra secret, it becomes more powerful. This is true with everything. A seed will grow in the earth - covered, in secret - but it will never grow on this table - uncovered, exposed. Whenever I give a mantra I whisper it very quietly and tell the person who is receiving it to please keep it personal. The purpose of the mantra is to render the mental plane clear and the mind still, so that you can go inside directly and become internalised. Once this purpose has been fulfilled, you can talk about your mantra or pass over it as you like. Mantras for spiritual evolution must be practiced for a set amount of time every day. If the mantra in repeated too much it will affect the whole system and those who are very psychic, sensitive, unstable, or subject to hallucinations may not be prepared for that at all. I have a rule for myself - never more than ten minutes. If you regularly repeat the mantra for ten minutes daily, within a few days you will know if you are oversensitive and whether the mantra is impressing your mind to a larger or lesser extent.
Mantra repetition should not create tension in the mind. The mind becomes tense if there are conflicts present due to various mental obstructions. To avoid mental tension - do not try to concentrate while practicing mantra. Simply repeat the mantra as you would spontaneously carry on a conversation. If you talk and try to concentrate on how you are talking and what you are saying, tension will be created. When the mind is very distracted you should never try to concentrate. In raja yoga concentration is known as dharana and it can only come once pratyahara or sense withdrawal has been achieved. When the mind is extroverted and distracted you cannot come face to face with it without creating conflict and tension. But if you simply repeat the mantra without trying to concentrate the mind, there will be no tension. The purpose of mantra repetition is not to develop concentration but to withdraw the senses and still the mind.
Practice mantra repetition every day for ten minutes. During this time you may think anything you like, but you must become introvert and maintain awareness while repealing it. This is why a mala (string of 108 beads separated by knots) is used. The mala keeps the mind in motion so that you do not become unconscious and fall asleep. If you repeat Om Namah Shivaya, Om Namah Shivaya and become lost in that, you will enter the unconscious state and sleep. However, with the mala, the mind may become introvert but awareness is maintained because every time you come back to the main bead, called the sumeru, you have to turn the mala. This keeps the mind sufficiently extrovert.
Everyone who has a mantra should remember this important point: During mantra repetition, do not fight the mind. It is your best friend. If you misbehave with the mind, it will give you many troubles. Mind is a magician. In one minute it can create neurosis, in another minute hallucinations, nervous breakdowns, phobias, and the desire to commit suicide. It is said in the Bhagavad Gita (chap.6, vs.6) that the mind is your friend, and also your enemy. If you learn how to observe and manage the mind it will become your best friend, but if you have no understanding or control over the mind, it will be your worst enemy.